by Libby Malin
Over the holiday, my husband and I treated ourselves to a re-viewing of the movie Star Trek. We'd seen it in the theater and loved it, and I wanted to judge whether it still held up on the small screen. It did, and then some. If anything, more intimate moments popped more for me on our modest-sized Toshiba.
One of the pleasures of watching a DVD, rather than the theatrical version, is clicking your way through to the "extra features." So we did, finding the "commentary" and watching a bit of the movie all over again while listening to the director and others offer insights into the action.
And here was a surprise -- the director had originally thought of opening the movie with the birth of Mr. Spock, instead of the action-packed moments leading up to Kirk's father's death. As Spock himself would say, this discussion of alternate beginnings was "fascinating."
If the movie had started with Spock's birth, it would have added a scene of "backstory" to the four or five already in place, delaying the arrival of the real meat of the story-- the world-threatening battle that fed Spock and Kirk's initial antipathy and ultimate friendship. The directors opted for a telescoped-in backstory, reasoning that viewers learn of Spock's human lineage in another early scene involving his earth-born mother. So they did what is so hard for artists to do -- they cut their own work.
But this discussion of how to start a story reminded me how difficult it is for any storyteller to decide just where to open the curtain for the reader/viewer.
Most of the time, I can just. . . start. The seeds of a story swirl in my head. I hear a snatch of dialogue, or glimpse part of a scene, and bingo-bango, I'm at the computer writing.
Occasionally, though, I struggle. I write an opening, then go back and write another. I re-read and jettison everything, trying again with yet another Act I. I have debates with myself about what will grab the reader (or acquiring editor!) versus what needs to be told to set the stage for what's to come.
How many authors wrestle with openings? I suspect many do. Looking at some famous novels, it's impossible to tell, however, if what now seem like perfect starters presented inner struggles for their writers.
In fact, it's interesting to note just how little of what is to come is given away in the first lines of some well-known books.
Here's a quick quiz on book beginnings that might be a fun post-holiday exercise! Below, you'll find first lines from several books. Can you guess what novels they belong to? (And do you wonder if the authors debated if they were launching their stories with the right lines?) Answers are at the end. . .
1. "He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees."
2. "We were studying when the headmaster came in, followed by a new boy, not yet wearing a school uniform, and a monitor carrying a large desk."
3. "Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically."
4. "1801--I have just returned from a visit to my landlord--the solitary neighbor that I shall be troubled with."
5. "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day."
6. "In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since."
7. "In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains."
8. "To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth."
9. "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."
10. "Sometimes Anne Wyatt wished she could feed parts of her life into a shredder."
1. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway; 2. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert; 3. Lady Chatterley's Lover, D.H. Lawrence; 4. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte; 5. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte; 6. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald; 7. A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway; 8. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck; 9. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen; 10. Fire Me, Libby Malin (hey--I couldn't resist including my own book! LOL!)
How many did you get? (Confession--I might have guessed just three correctly myself if I'd not had the books in front of me.)